Wednesday, May 19, 2004


Rap's Liberace
(From this week's Minneapolis City Pages)
    It takes new lexicons to phrase Ghostface's grace; his ballistic imagination inspires inventions like illtacular, stuntastic, splendescent. While other peers play it so cool they're frozen, Ghost embraces flamboyance like rap's Liberace, eschewing sequined robes for a mouth that spits confetti. Check these random shards from "Beat the Clock": "I be potent like ibuprofen/I be coasting/With two shotties on me/In your grimiest lobby smoking." That kind of heady wordplay isn't always consistent or accessible, yet it generates excitement with every vivid line. On "Run," he spills a torrent of cinematic imagery, warning, "Hop fences/Jump over benches/When you see me coming/Get the fuck out the entrance." Your body instinctually braces for impact.

    Ghost can get topical when shedding sentiment on "Save Me Dear" or sparring with Jackie-O on "Tooken Back," but he's best when painting outside the lines. For "Holla," his rhymes steamroll over the Philly soul classic "La La La"--not a sample from that track, but the actual song, the Delfonics' vocals be damned. Ghost enjoys playing the superhero with his x-ray rhymes, but throughout his career he's also revealed vulnerabilities that border on proto-emo. He ends the album with "Love," a heartfelt dedication to Martin, Malcolm, his mom, his babies, and so forth. It's a stark contrast from the brutish misogyny of "Last Night" or slobbering lust of "Keisha's House." Ghost's line from "Love," "Funny how love could end so subtle/Was it just sex and not really love for the couple?" is so poetically sensitive, you'd think you wandered into an Erykah Badu video.

    Pretty Toney isn't Ghost's best album; he's yet to surpass the uniform excellence of his first two, Ironman and Supreme Clientele. Yet, in a year where urrrbody in the club's getting tipsy, Ghostface responds with a hypo of adrenaline straight through the chest plate, right when you didn't even realize you needed it.

Whoo-Ridin' for Revolution
(from this week's San Francisco Bay Guardian)

    THE MOST POWERFUL statement Dead Prez make on their new album, RBG: Revolutionary but Gangsta (Sony), is with the cover art. Their recasting of the African red, black, and green in paisley doo-rag shades adroitly distills their image as robbin' hoods out to AK their way into a new world order. If nothing else, M-1 and Stic excel at pushing the idea(l) of '60s riot revolution in a tempting package. Compared to their 2000 release, Let's Get Free, RBG is tighter, as their low-end electro rumblings tug harder at your gut, and double-time, Southern-fried flows nestle snuggly in the pocket. This is marching music for a new generation of street soldiers, and Dead Prez wave the recruitment flag loud and proud.

    Stic and M-1 aspire to what Oakland's Coup have excelled at: kicking complex ideologies on race and class to both the ivory tower and asphalt alley. Dead Prez's current hit, "Hell Yeah (Pimp the System)," for example, is a manifesto of working-class rebellion, a guidebook to "pimping the system." However, in contrast to the Coup's Boots and his sophisticated ways of coding messages into music, Dead Prez's songwriting, at best, is unintentionally humorous in its hyperbole. At worst, they just dish out didacticism.

    Some 15 years after Public Enemy and N.W.A. shook the world, it's no longer enough just to shout, "Revolution!" and throw up a clenched fist. Today's politically engaged hip-hop fan has a right to demand artistry with his or her agitprop, but Dead Prez's proselytizing lacks both passion and subtlety. For example, "I Have a Dream Too" promotes drive-bys on cops, but it's surprisingly tame and tedious compared to the unleashed anger of Jay Dee's funky, furious "Fuck the Police." "W-4" tries to engage working-class frustrations, but Kayne West's "Spaceship" tackles the same topic with far more sophistication and spirit. Even their catchy "Hell Yeah" begins to drag when you realize not only that their calls to commit credit fraud and carjack pizza delivery people estrange the very wage slaves they're supposed to unite, but also that it's fundamentally a hustler's anthem that lacks a collective consciousness. Dead Prez's political plank juts out provocatively but fails to connect anywhere.

    This may sound like damning with faint praise, but RBG is a compelling listen so long as you don't listen too closely. The group's thick, sticky sound beckons your body into compliance even if your mind resists. Moreover, Stic and M-1 deserve recognition for trying to ignite popular outrage in a time of arrogant apathy. But good intentions don't equal great songs, and the pair's reliance on flat rhetoric muffles their impact. Where they should be lobbing Molotovs, Dead Prez mostly rub sticks that produce smoke, but alas, little fire.